Kava: The Peaceful Plant

In the South Pacific, kava has long been granted the special quality of bestowing peace and tranquility on its users, making them more agreeable and friendly. This is perhaps why the serving of kava has formed a centerpiece of any ritual negotiation or meeting in South Pacific countries such as Samoa, Vanuatu, Tonga, and others. In fact, the ni-Vanuatu name for the hut where kava is consumed, the nakamal, literally translates to "place of peace". With this ancient reputation, it's small wonder that so many Westerners have looked to kava to bring a little peace and harmony into their lives.

Consumed as a beverage or herbal supplement, kava reduces stress and tension in a number of subtle ways that may also encourage sociability. Sometimes called the "anti-shyness herb", kava's calming properties can reduce muscle tension, nervousness, and the mild anxiety* that often gets in the way of socializing. One thing to remember is that different strains of kava can have somewhat different effects: Some varieties may be more mentally stimulating, encouraging talkativeness and socialization, while other types of kava may have a stronger calming effect and are better suited to a night of quiet introspection by oneself. Other strains of kava are more relaxing to the body and can help ease aches, pains and muscle tension*.

As you might expect given these differences, South Pacific societies use the different strains of kava for different purposes; some strains are reserved for ritual or medicinal purposes, while others are used more informally in social settings. For instance, Fijians often sip kava throughout the day, much like mate is consumed in Argentina, while in Hawaii some strains of kava were reserved exclusively for royalty and indigenous priests (kahuna).

However, one uniting factor is that kava brews are always served during ceremonial occasions such as coronations, birthdays, funerals, political negotiations, and the welcoming of guests to a village. In the South Pacific, no official occasion can be said to be complete until kava is served to all the participants. This custom is similar to chewing coca leaf in the Andes during meetings, or serving tea and coffee at a business meeting in the West. Often associated with good health and vitality, serving these kinds of ritual libations can be seen as a gesture of good will on the part of the host. In the case of coffee, tea and coca, the stimulating effects of these substances may also help parties to a negotiation keep their attention on the topic at hand.

So how does kava fit into this framework, you may ask? It has been speculated that kava assumed its central place in ritual and negotiations because of its ability to calm jitters and nervousness, which may have helped people reach a better accord in meetings that carried a high degree of tension, such as political negotiations. Which leads us to wonder: if kava were adopted as the drink of choice in business and political meetings in the West, how might our tense, stressed-out world change for the better?